Interview tips beyond the usual

  • Stephanie Clark

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Interview Hot Spots

Posted by Stephanie on August 31, 2012

About 15 years ago, I applied to a prestigious and globally recognized institution, to an opening for the Executive Director’s Assistant. And, I landed an interview.

It was curious: two women conducted the interview and they never made eye contact with one another. I noticed that and began to think “I don’t event want to work here as it is abundantly clear that these two are not happy.” What would be the point of leaving a job that I didn’t love but didn’t hate, for a job that was likely more like the fire than the frying pan?

It’s not always this clear, though, whether a workplace is unhealthy, dysfunctional, a total mess! How is the savvy interviewee to know? Here are a few tips:

1. Experts say it takes about three minutes to determine a person’s baseline of behaviour. During this time you can assess normal behaviours: rate of speech, physical activity that accompanies speech, the rate of “word whiskers,” those umms and so on that find their way into our speech patterns. Spend time chit-chatting about sports scores, weekend activities, or the latest great book you are reading so that you can observe and take (mental) note.

2. During the interview, ask questions about the workplace and watch the person’s response. If you asked “How does the corporation/division celebrate successes?” and the interviewer immediately begins to tap a pen or jiggle a leg or avoid eye contact or purse their lips, your “spidey senses” should be on high alert. Ask follow up questions to be sure of your evaluation.

Judging credibility or trying to figure out if a place is seething with issues is not easy. If my spidey senses were all a-tingle with doubt and suspicion, after the interview I would make a few phone calls to random people who work there to ask their opinion. I’ve done this before, and chose to NOT take a job based on what the employees told me. (And never regretted it. It’s amazing what people will tell you if you’re just plain honest and ask.)

Taking a job with an employer where people are unhappy, overworked, micro-managed or otherwise not productively engaged in delivering their service is unlikely to lead to your own success. Choose wisely and remember: you do have the right to choose! Working to your career’s success, Stephanie


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Plain Talk is Best

Posted by Stephanie on August 16, 2012

I recall being nervous before interviews. Part of it was because I hadn’t prepared – I didn’t know how to prepare, way back when.

I’m embarrassed to admit it, but once upon a time I wasn’t even aware of the many career management books available at the local library! I think that I assumed “how to interview” was a skill that most people were born with, or that their schools had done a better job than mine of covering this critical life skill (another blog topic perhaps?). Yes, nervous, unprepared, and afraid of coming across as stupid. Okay, I said it. Admitted my very human feeling of inadequacy and coming across as dumb. Phew, not so bad!

And part of that feeling was of being at a loss for words. I think I put far too much pressure on myself to “sound intelligent.” You know, use fancy words, or “high fallutin” language as a recent client said!

Nonsense. Take the pressure off yourself by giving yourself permission to speak plainly. I guarantee you that the interview team’s members won’t even notice whether you had, or had not, used language that made you eligible for a PhD.

The less pressure you feel to “perform” a certain way, the more relaxed you will be, the more natural your delivery and the more connection you’ll establish with your interviewer(s).  Establishing rapport and connection is more important than most job seekers are aware of. “Fit” is likely equal to credentials when it comes to landing that job offer. Working to your career success, Stephanie (feeling fine after admitting to human foibles!)

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Leadership – 5 Traits That Might Just Say Enough

Posted by Stephanie on August 7, 2012

Leadership is difficult to prove. After all, you can’t just “claim” leadership traits. You must demonstrate these.

These five might just suffice to prove that you’re a minimum-risk new hire, and a capable leader.

1. You know your stuff. This is relatively easy to prove: identify the top five skills needed in your line of work (trouble-shooting? customer service? managing people?) and make sure you throw examples into as many responses as possible. Also, demonstrate that you keep learning by reading industry periodicals, participating in courses (online or in class), reading blogs or subscribing to newsletters, participating in professional groups … you can’t stay great if your skills or knowledge become outdated.

2. Demonstrate that you are well liked. Mention how your team celebrated your birthday, how they come to you to ask clarification, how they have even trusted you with personal issues. These show respect and trust – undeniable traits of effective leadership.

3. Your passion and ambition. One cannot succeed without a true love of the work one does. Show it, share it, voice it. Don’t hold back so much that your audience isn’t quite sure. Gush about it – apologize for going overboard, but don’t risk seeming blase. Ambition means you’ll work hard to get noticed and you’ll strive on the company’s behalf – and this will imply your potential.

4. That you “play nice.” This doesn’t mean that you’re always “nice”; it means that you are fair and friendly. That you respect your team members and don’t chastise anyone in public; that you give credit where it’s due and don’t hoard it for yourself; that you delegate with an eye to who has the best to offer in that role – it’s all about getting people working together for the company’s benefit.

5. That you have what it takes. Much of leadership is about making tough choices, evaluating data and situations quickly and purposefully. It’s about constantly assessing, analyzing, evaluating … and generally coming up with good decisions. Have examples of quick thinking, critical thinking, decisiveness and tough decisions ready to share. The examples with a good ending must outweigh those where the ending was unintended or not so great. For the endings that went haywire, be ready to explain what steps you took to fix it.

Keep in mind that a leader cannot simply prove competency; a leader must prove true leadership. Give these five a try in your next interview.

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Interviewers don’t like interviewing

Posted by Stephanie on July 31, 2012

Imagine listening to people drone on and on without much enthusiasm, clearly nervous, scared, unprepared … I’ve watched an interview team come out of the room after sitting through three interviews, and believe me, they look drained, glassy eyed, and ready for espresso, never mind plain coffee!

Although I cannot claim that all interviewers dislike interviewing, a good number likely mull over plans to call in sick on a day when they’ve scheduled a full day on interviews.

Use this knowledge to your advantage, job hunter! Show enthusiasm, interest, personality. It’s a critical component of the evaluation. Hiring decisions are as much about fit with the existing division/team/department as it is about having the skill-set.

Here are a few ideas on how to communicate personality, enthusiasm, energy, interest:

  • Mention self-study through weekly RSS feeds or newsletters, on-line courses or a recent reading list. And be prepared to chat about industry trends. You wouldn’t conduct self-study unless you really and authentically loved your work.
  • Refer to teams and committees for which you volunteered. Again, you wouldn’t add to your existing workload unless you were passionate about the field you were in.
  • Speak with enthusiasm. Don’t hold yourself in, full of reservation and caution. (Don’t jump onto the couch either – you know where that led a certain movie star!) Show an interest, add inflection to your delivery, and err on the side of enthusiasm rather than reservedness. (Of course that depends on the job; an actuarial might be expected to be studious, whereas a communications/marketing staff might benefit from some excitement. You must always exercise your own judgement and be authentic to your normal level of engagement.)
  • Most important: please come prepared. It is boring to sit through an hour-long interview where the candidate arrived on confidence alone. Preparation means work. And lots of it. It means knowing what your five key strengths/talents/skills are, and having examples that demonstrate these”at work.” It means knowing what the employer will expect of you, on the job, and it’s not just these skills. It means having conducted research into market activities, or recent press coverage, and addressing upcoming challenges.

If your interview team enjoys the conversation, you’re as good as in! Make the decision easy – wow the interviewer and score the job offer! Working to your career success, Stephanie

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How to ace your interview: Own your talent, skills, and accomplishments

Posted by Stephanie on July 15, 2012

This weekend I am coaching a senior professional who is anxious about an upcoming interview for her dream job. And once again I am amazed (and this happens all the time so I should be used to it) at how someone with great skills and real accomplishments proven through  a few decades of a stellar career, becomes quite inept at communicating value when trying to reply to an interview question.

Two questions that my client asked were particularly revealing. Let’s call this client Joan. Faced with a telephone interview, Joan asked of me:

“How do I greet the HR Manager on the phone?”

I am very much for a common sense approach, and I am also dedicated to being as authentic as possible – taking into account that nerves and being on one’s best behaviour are a normal part of “meeting” someone for the first time – and so my reply reflected this. I said,

“Well, my advice is to stay true to your own nature. If you are normally quite formal, be formal and if you’re more on the friendly side, be friendly.”

For me to say “It is indeed a pleasure to meet with you, sir, and I extend my gratitude for your time,” would be odd. It would be far more my style to smile a lot and say less, a la “I’m so glad to meet you.” If I were to go with the former, and the company was a Google-style easy going, shorts at work, pets sleeping under the desk kind of place, they’d sense a disconnect in working style and rightly pass me by in favour for that candidate that fit the culture with the casual version. It’s always best to be yourself and let the right company take notice of you – leave the company that doesn’t fit your style for another candidate.

The second question was actually a reply to a question about how Joan’s career had evolved. She was ready to give credit for her hire for 9/11. For more than one reason I cautioned her not to do this. First of all, given who her audience is, they would not be left feeling warm and fuzzy to this reference (sorry I cannot give more details but trust me, the interviewer might just cut the interview short and she’d be right out of the running!). But mostly, she is giving away a perfect opportunity to “own her stuff.” To toot her horn a bit, share her passion for her second career, and showcase why she, rather than another, was offered a promotion . She could then build on her answer with a reference to accomplishments since. “And I’m always reminded that my career move from sales to human resources was a good one as I love going to work every day, and have made significant impacts with improved staff retention, reduced sick days, significantly improved customer service training, enhanced the working environment – all of which come from the belief that today more than ever HR must and can be a valued business partner. My company has grown from an insignificant player to now holding 3rd place in market share and we’re still moving up. I know that my work has played a role in that growth.”

Own it! Own your communication style, your working methodologies, your staff, budget or account management … and certainly own your accomplishments. If it was your idea and your work, say so; if you delegated to a team, give credit where it’s due. But don’t obsess over being “perfect” as you wouldn’t know whose definition of perfection to use anyways and you’re not going to succeed in changing yourself even for a job, and don’t credit your hire to anyone or anyone else.

– Working to your career success, Stephanie

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Unusual Interview Formats

Posted by Stephanie on July 2, 2012

Today I received an email from a recent client’s mom. She had hired me to help her son with his post-grad job hunt after he had spent several months in job search mode, with no success in landing interviews. And now, after our work together, and after landing a few interviews, he landed a job offer and begins work tomorrow! Yeah!

She shared with me (mom in this case is in human resources and has recruited many times) that this last interview was quite unusual. The company presented its information and the job details and then asked no questions at all. It was up to my client to “sell himself.”

Would you be prepared to sell yourself with no hints as to what to go on, and no questions that give structure to your response? I’d love to give you some ideas!

First of all, you should always have your 2-minute “pitch” at the ready. It doesn’t have to be slick, but it must be clear and succinct. And then, you should know which five or so skills are most applicable to the job to which you are applying. And, you must be ready with examples of how you’ve implemented these skills at work – yes, actual detailed examples and not general, non-specific, one-size-fits-all explanations of skills. And, these examples must prove that your performance enhanced your employer’s productivity and profits, or for jobs that don’t require revenue generation (nursing, social work), that your performance enhanced your employer’s service delivery, and safeguarded reputation.

Actually, if you have prepared – as you must – you will have these already identified, formulated, committed to memory (or paper as who says you can’t bring your homework with you into the interview room), and ready to share.

If you leave your interviews claiming that the “cat’s got your tongue again,” might I suggest you need a little help? Your career is critical to you. If you leave everything to chance, you chance landing something less than the best. Put effort into it and reap the benefits! Do your homework, be prepared, show the job is important to you and get ready to accept an offer. Working to your career success, Stephanie


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The Job Interview’s Goal

Posted by Stephanie on June 25, 2012

Many job hunters feel that even when invited to an interview, the interviewer’s goal is to eliminate them from the competition. And although, yes, all but one must be eliminated, why immediately put yourself at a disadvantage by assuming it must be you?

Having been invited to the table, you have as much chance as the other successful applicants at landing the job offer, but you have to interview with strategy.

Here’s what you need to prove in the interview to stand out from your competitors.

1. First the employer needs to be assured that you have the skills to do the job. Yes, your resume did a good job of demonstrating essential skills “at work,” but now you must incorporate these as you reply to interview questions. Along with job-related examples, mention your self-study, volunteering for team assignments, and other examples that prove ability and enthusiasm.

2. The employer will be impressed by your ability to tie your work to his bottom line. Be sure to pull in a few lines about how you work collaboratively with other departments, and otherwise demonstrate your awareness of how your job impacts other departments and your colleagues’ workload. Relate your performance to profits and you’ll be way ahead of your competitors.

3. Be sure to relieve any possible question of your willingness to put the employer’s gains first and foremost while at work. Examples of teamwork, of continuing education, or of resolving workplace issues will satisfy the need to know that you are easy to manage, that you won’t be a bad apple that spoils group dynamics, and that your manager’s annual bonus won’t be in jeopardy with your hire.

4. Don’t neglect to show your problem solving prowess. Every position has problems to solve and demonstrating your ability to proactively identify and reactively resolve – with efficiency – is paramount. Neglect this and you’ve missed an opportunity to showcase your deep knowledge, keen analytical skills, time management and organizational methodologies, and your leadership in the way of self-discipline or delegation. So many skills are integral to problem solving and you must have a list of examples, at the ready, with which to wow your interviewer.

Next interview – go in determined that since you were invited, you’ve every right to be awarded the job offer. And by applying these tactics – relating your skills to the employer’s bottom line, putting the employer’s needs on the top, and showing a real enthusiasm for your work – you’ll leave an impression that is most likely to lead to a job offer.

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One word you must eliminate from your interview

Posted by Stephanie on June 14, 2012

Before I begin writing a new client’s resume, we schedule a telephone conversation. Actually one client called it an interrogation! I ask many questions, and drill down to make sure that the information I have to work with is detailed and specific. Sometimes I end up with four pages of typed notes and it’s my task to distill the info into one or two pages of succinct, well worded, easy to read, highly relevant resume copy.

Not an easy task, but one that I relish!

Now, in those conversations, as I ask further questions to get to specifics, I often hear a client say “Oh, I just (insert one of your key skills here).” That word “just,” used in this fashion, to dimish or understate one’s contribution, doesn’t belong in any career conversation, at least in my opinion!

The odd thing is that so often the word is used to downplay a key talent or strength, one that is essential in the job to which the client aspires.

Would you have any faith in me as a professional resume writer (and feel confident paying me?) if I were to tell you “After interviewing you, I just take some of your words and type them out.”

Why then, would an employer have any confidence in your hire if you shared “I just tweaked a few processes, that’s all”? Own your skills! Speak of them with pride and realize that expertise has value. Here’s another consideration. Underplaying your abilities may undermine a lucrative starting salary. Demonstrate how your abilities brought real value to your past employers and you have salary bargaining power.

Working to your career success, Stephanie

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Post-interview follow-up

Posted by Stephanie on June 4, 2012

Today a client contacted me to ask a familiar oft-asked question: “The interviewer told me he’d call me by last Friday and I’ve not heard anything. Is it okay to email and ask?”

There are so many variations to this answer that it’s difficult to conceive of all possibilities. My answer is, as I so often say, “It depends.”

Did you establish a great rapport? Did you ask how you stand vis a vis the other applicants? Did the interviewer make it clear that the position needs someone NOW? Did you ask if you could email next week to inquire?

You get the point. So many variables, so many possible follow-up scenarios!

1. Perhaps one of those points above gave you an idea for the next interview? Be clear about next steps. If you’re not told, ask.

2. Don’t forget to send a “thank you” note. And don’t forget that it’s also a self-marketing document. Reaffirm why you’re perfect for the position; convey your passion for the field; remind the interviewer of your past accomplishment – the one most relevant to the job’s immediate need.

3. If you don’t hear and you expected to hear, send a quick and friendly email. Don’t ask “Did I get the job?” or even worse “I guess another candidate got the job?” Rather give the interviewer or your future boss, whoever you’re dealing with, some information. Share an article, a perspective, or an idea or plan for immediate on-the-job effectiveness that you’ve come up with.

Sorry, no clear answer, no one-size-fits-all strategy, because that wouldn’t be strategy at all. Strategy depends on a variety of circumstances, scenarios, interpretations, nuances … you have to use your judgment and common sense to devise what works for you. Or bounce your idea off a career management professional who could provide sound advice, strategic ideas, and customized-to-you possibilities!

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Should you badmouth a previous employer?

Posted by Stephanie on June 1, 2012

It’s pretty much inevitable that by the time we’ve held a few part time and full time jobs, we’ve likely experienced a bad, rotten-to-the-core, unethical or abusive manager or employer. (How these types climb the career ladder is a mystery, but it happens. I hear it time and again from my clients, and of course I’ve worked under at least two of these myself.)

And that leads us to the question of how to deal with a question about the related employment, which was either cut short as we fled, or had no great accomplishments as we simply “did our job” without enthusiasm, or even led to a demotion because we dared speak up.

In general, it’s best to leave the negatives out of an interview, but there are situations in which it doesn’t hurt to point something out. It’s a fine line, a personal decision too, but here’s an idea or two to when that might work in your favor.

  • If your criticism makes a strong case for your candidacy, as it emphasizes your commitment to your chosen field of work, it is more likely to be received positively. For example, if you worked for a landscaper each summer, to pay your way through school, and your field of studies was focused on safety in the workplace, and one of those landscapers cut serious safety corners, you could mention that. Don’t get personal, of course, referring to his old-fashioned hairstyle, body odour, or foul language, stick to the facts such as lack of regard for workers’ safety by not providing work gloves or goggles. After a quick mention of these facts, swing the rest of your reply over to what measures you’ve implemented in the workplace and how much these saved in worker compensation type fees and missed days of work.
  • If your negative comment emphasizes your own career path choice, that’s easier to share. “After working on an organic farm I realized that farming was definitely not for me, even though a career assessment suggested that,” can make an interesting beginning to a great “how I fit this career choice” story! And pulling the interviewer into a conversation with an engaging story works very well in establishing rapport, a critical aspect of interview success!

Interviewing is a bit “tricksy,” and takes strategy, a bit of public relations know-how, and the ability to read social cues quickly. Ah, there’s another topic for next time … how to read your interviewer’s social cues! Working to your career success, Stephanie


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